Mainland Chinese tourists visit Wan Chai. Photo: HK Government

A trial scheme for people to travel from Hong Kong to the mainland without quarantine is expected to be launched in the first week of December, a fortnight earlier than scheduled, Hong Kong newspapers say.

A full-scale border reopening will start by June at the latest, the South China Morning Post reported, citing officials familiar with the situation.

Initially, a daily quota of several hundred people will be allowed for cross-border travel for business and family purposes, other Hong Kong media reported. The quota will expand to several thousand people step by step in the following months, covering students and tourists.

An earlier start of the trial scheme will allow Chinese athletes to visit Hong Kong without isolation in early December to promote the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing next February.

Since late January 2020, people in Hong Kong had been required to be quarantined at hotels for 14 days when they travel to the mainland and another 14 days when they return to the city.

In November 2020, the Hong Kong government launched a Return2HK scheme that allows Hong Kong residents to come back from the mainland without quarantine. In September this year, it launched a Come2HK scheme for mainlanders to visit Hong Kong but they still have to be isolated on the mainland when they return home.

Still, the number of mainland travelers to Hong Kong has declined by more than 95% from the normal level, seriously hurting the shops and restaurants in Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay.

Local business people complained that they could not visit their Chinese counterparts often due to the 14-day quarantine requirements on the mainland. Neither could they exhibit their products in Hong Kong as foreign buyers were reluctant to visit the city due to tough quarantine rules.

Travelers cross the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. Photo: RTHK

Early this month, health officials of the Hong Kong and central governments reached a consensus about the launch of a trial scheme that would reopen the border. The scheme was scheduled to start on December 17 but the Winter Olympics factorcould have played a role in speeding up its launch.

After the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the White House was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games, President Joe Biden on Thursday confirmed such a potential move that would be aimed at protesting China’s human rights record in Xinjiang.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, on Friday criticized the US for politicizing the Winter Olympics.

Previously, media have reported that Chinese athletes for the Olympics would visit Hong Kong on December 2. On Thursday, the South China Morning Post reported that the border-reopening scheme would start from the first week of next month.

Citing a Beijing-based insider, it said the reopening had now “received the attention of the top Chinese leaders” and all sides were “working hard to make it happen”.

George Leung Siu-kay, chief executive of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, said it was very important to reopen the border as it would help boost human and capital flows between the two places. Leung said he hoped that business people would enjoy a higher priority to use the daily quota of the trial scheme as they had to busily handle their mainland businesses by the Chinese New Year on February 1.

Simon Kwok Siu-ming, chairman and chief executive of Sa Sa International Holdings Ltd, a cosmetics retailer, said he expected quarantine-free travel at the border would help his company boost sales and reduce losses in the coming two months.

Kwok said his stores had seen a 10% revenue growth after the Hong Kong government started delivering HK$5,000 (US$612) consumption vouchers to people in October. He said he remained conservative about the progress of the border-reopening so his company reduced the number of its shops in Hong Kong and Macau and slowed its expansion on the mainland during the second half.

Hong Kong’s shops have been hit by the travel restrictions. Photo: Asia Times

Noel Quinn, chief executive of HSBC Holdings, said in an economic forum in Singapore on Thursday that it was important for Hong Kong to coordinate with mainland China on border-reopening. He said he currently had no plans to visit Hong Kong as he would not do anything to put Hong Kong’s efforts to open up travel to the mainland at risk.

Quinn’s comment came after Jamie Dimon, chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, received an exemption from quarantine for his 36-hour stay in Hong Kong.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Dimon had received special permission in the interest of Hong Kong’s economy. Lam said JPMorgan was a big bank and had vital business in Hong Kong.

On November 5, Lam said large-scale border reopening with the mainland would kick off in February while adding that more good news on the issue would be announced soon.

Although American, European and local business groups have urged the Hong Kong government to ease its quarantine rules for international travel, Lam insisted on making the reopening of the Hong Kong-mainland border her government’s top priority, at the expense of the city’s role as an international business hub.

On Wednesday, Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong, had reportedly decided to leave this position due to her failure to persuade the Hong Kong government to relax Covid-19 rules and the need to undergo quarantine herself. Joseph told Reuters she was currently in the US and would be isolated for 21 days if she returned to Hong Kong. She will stay in her position for six months to give AmCham time to look for a new president.

Bernard Chan, convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, said the Hong Kong government understood that many foreign business people were affected by the city’s quarantine rules but it was more important for Hong Kong to reopen its border with mainland than foreign countries.

Chan said as only less than 20% of local people aged above 80 had been inoculated, it was too dangerous for Hong Kong to open its international border or adopt a “living with Covid-19 virus” for the moment.

Read: HK hopes to reopen mainland border in December